Who's To Blame for Beslan?
At the trial of the sole surviving school hostage-taker, families lash out at the Russian authorities.
Walking me through the ruined gymnasium, where the floor and walls are covered with flowers and wreaths and bottles of water and graffiti excoriating Putin, local retiree Ruslan Tebiyev points to the corners where the bombs ignited and then to the missing roof. "The people who burned my wife alive must be held responsible. Even if it was the 'federals,' " he says, using the local term for Russian soldiers. Tebiyev is collecting incendiary launchers that were found near the school and working with Moscow-based journalists to determine if they are Russian military issue.
At the trial, citizens like Tebiyev are allowed to question the accused, and lately the questions focus almost entirely on the sniper and flamethrower theories. Prosecutor Nikolai Shepel has insisted that neither tactic was employed.
It's likely that the truth lies somewhere between the official line and the residents' theories. According to eyewitness accounts and to Western reporters who were here that day, militants ignited the first bomb by accident and the second bomb after realizing their mistake. These explosions, witnesses and reporters say, caused the roof to collapse.
But residents here can't forget the 2002 Nord-Ost hostage-taking in a Moscow theater that ended with Russian forces gassing the theater with a substance that eventually killed more than 100 civilians. So, the question that remains is how the Russians handled the firefight after the gym explosions. Many witnesses agree that the soldiers' response was disorganized at best. Residents also question why tanks were brought in when so many innocent lives were at stake. Russian authorities say no tanks fired until all the survivors had escaped the school; the mothers say they want proof.
In addition to the mothers' investigations, the local parliament is also conducting an inquiry, as is a parliamentary commission in Moscow. But the release of those reports has been repeatedly delayed. Officials say the investigations will not be complete until the end of the year.
For Susanna Dudiyeva, whose 13-year-old son, Zaur, left for school on Sept. 1, 2004, "looking like a grown man, a handsome man" and never came home again, that's not soon enough.
Kelly McEvers is a contributor to National Public Radio and a founding editor of www.SixBillion.org.
Photograph of Nurpashi Kulayev by Vladimir Mugakov/ITAR-TASS.